After Alabama Sen. Luther Strange's recent defeat in a Republican primary runoff, the national spotlight turned west and onto incumbents in Nevada and Arizona already facing intra-party challenges next year. Yet just over the nearest border, a Mississippi state senator with something of a vendetta against the party's establishment was feeling empowered to mount another insurrection.
Chris McDaniel came close to defeating U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014 and is now weighing a bid against Republican Sen. Roger Wicker. McDaniel monitored the Alabama runoff up close, appearing there in support of eventual victor Roy Moore and getting face time with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who is plotting his own war against the establishment GOP via congressional primaries next year. McDaniel says Bannon is encouraging him to run against Wicker in Mississippi. And while he won't make a final decision about getting into the race until the end of October, he said the results in his neighboring state were nothing short of inspiring.
"These are definitely exciting times," McDaniel said in an interview with RealClearPolitics, calling the political climate "a great awakening."
Three years ago, McDaniel forced Cochran into a primary runoff that tested the power of the party against Tea Party-aligned forces. In that midterm year, Republicans not only overcame primary challengers but expanded their ranks to take the majority in the upper chamber. And even as Trump upended the establishment to secure the presidential nomination in 2016, incumbent senators survived challengers that year too.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, under the direction of Roger Wicker, preserved the majority in the chamber and lost just two seats, which happened to also be in states Trump lost.
This time, McDaniel and other potential challengers are hoping to capitalize on heightened GOP voter dissatisfaction with the Republican-controlled Congress. An analysis of the Alabama race by the Senate Leadership Fund, a Mitch McConnell-aligned super PAC that spent heavily on behalf of Strange, explained that GOP leadership has now become the new bogeyman for angry voters, who largely see Congress' lack of legislative accomplishments as an impediment to the Trump agenda.
That dynamic is encouraging to McDaniel, who might otherwise have trouble arguing that someone like Wicker isn't sufficiently conservative. The election of Trump seemed to scramble conservative ideology and angst regarding the status quo. Even McDaniel, who campaigned three years ago as a "true conservative" and plans to do so again, acknowledges the president's inconsistencies.
"The reason we thought the election of Trump was important was because he was an agent of change," he told RCP. "Sometimes we disagree. But as long as he is pushing back against Washington, D.C., and against the establishment ... what we're really after here is to change Washington."
Republican voters, he said, "sense a disconnect between the people we're electing and the people on the ground, and they feel no one is listening."
Yet Republican strategists and operatives in Mississippi are cautious about extrapolating too much from the results in their neighboring state, even if they think McDaniel could wage a credible challenge to Wicker. Roy Moore has been a known commodity in Alabama with a deep and loyal conservative/evangelical following. While many outside the state see him as a highly controversial insurgent, his appeal had been long established among conservatives there. Additionally, Strange's appointment by the scandal-plagued Gov. Robert Bentley, following Jeff Sessions' confirmation as attorney general, also played a role in voters' distaste for him.
"Alabama was its own unique election. It had the variables that no other state has right now," said Austin Barbour, a GOP strategist who advised Cochran's campaign in 2014 and ran Wicker's campaign in 2008.
Mississippi, too, will have its own set of circumstances. One of them is that if McDaniel decides to run, his race against Cochran three years ago figures to loom large.
McDaniel contested the runoff results in 2014 in which he finished just under 8,000 votes behind the six-term senator and ginned up controversy by arguing the election had been stolen from him and his supporters. Cochran, who finished behind McDaniel in the primary's first round--in which neither man topped 50 percent of the vote--mobilized Democrats and African Americans for the runoff (Mississippi holds open primaries). Cochran's team argued during the campaign that the incumbent's position on the Appropriations Committee was critical to a state that depends on government-subsidized education and health programs. The GOP and allied groups spent millions on behalf of the incumbent.
The race had turned ugly early on, after rogue supporters of McDaniel broke into a nursing home to take pictures of Cochran's ailing wife in an apparent attempt to highlight the senator's longtime relationship with an aide on his staff. Four men were arrested in connection with the incident.
Some strategists believe McDaniel's challenge of the runoff results played poorly among the electorate, and could serve as an impediment should he run again. But McDaniel isn't backing away from it and suggests it might carry more appeal in the current environment: "Many of our people feel like that race was basically taken from them. The anger has only intensified."
Another local issue that could play a role in this race is controversy over the state flag, which features the Confederate stars and bars. In an April referendum, a large majority of Mississippi voters opted to keep the flag as is. After the racially charged events in Charlottesville, Va., that sparked nationwide questions about Confederate monuments, Wicker said the flag should be placed in a museum and replaced by a "more unifying" banner.
"As the descendant of several brave Americans who fought for the Confederacy, I have not viewed Mississippi's current state flag as offensive," he said at the time. "However, it is clearer and clearer to me that many of my fellow citizens feel differently and that our state flag increasingly portrays a false impression of our state to others."
McDaniel seized upon the statement. "Roger Wicker is using the tragedy in Charlottesville to again stand with liberals and call for the removal of our state flag," said a campaign-like email to supporters.
Wicker is a former House member who was appointed to the Senate in 2007 after the resignation of former Minority Leader (and before that Majority Leader) Trent Lott, who had been ousted from his leadership post a few years earlier after controversial racial remarks. Wicker won a special election for the seat the following year, and was re-elected in 2012. While he is better known in the state for working behind the scenes, Wicker does not have the outsized profile as Cochran, which could make him more vulnerable to a primary challenge.
In an environment in which GOP members of Congress are seen as ineffective by their own voters, Wicker's challenge will be to explain to them what he sees as accomplishments. Strategists in the state note that while Wicker may not be well-known beyond the state, he is a savvy political operator who made key connections as chairman of the NRSC.
Political observers note that Mississippi voters also tend to value incumbency, as evidenced by Cochran's seven terms. But the national environment has changed dramatically in recent years. "The mayor of Los Angeles has a bigger constituency than a federal official in Mississippi," said John Bruce, chairman of the Political Science Department at Ole Miss. "There's a reasonable chance you're going to meet a lot of voters. You're going to know them. It is the ultimate small-town dimension. And I don't know how much that buffers the broader trend."
Since Mississippi doesn't hold its primary until June, it is difficult to gauge what President Trump's involvement will be, if any. Trump has been critical of lawmakers who cross him, such as Jeff Flake of Arizona, and goes to bat for the ones who support him, such as Strange. But it's unclear whether the latter's Alabama loss will color his approach to future endorsements.
Bannon, however, is trying to exert influence. The New York Times reported that he has aligned with the affluent Mercer family to fund his plans moving forward. While the extent of Bannon's impact is debatable--critics note that Moore was already leading in his race before the former White House adviser jumped in--the financial support flowing from his efforts could be a factor in some contests.
Even if the Alabama results presented a unique set of circumstances, strategists in Mississippi acknowledge the intensity of voter anger there toward Washington is palpable.
"There is even among 'party people' a frustration," says state Republican consultant Hayes Dent, though he notes that Wicker is still well positioned there. "The way things go now is, they argue all day and they can't get big stuff done and they blame each other. ... Everybody is very frustrated in D.C., which is why you end up with this whole 'drain the swamp' stuff."
Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics.
Editorial on 10/08/2017
Print Headline: Mississippi could be the next Alabama